A Strangeness In My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

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A Few Generalised Thoughts

I have just finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerising tome of a translated novel (pub. 22nd Sept 2015 in the UK) called A Strangeness In My Mind. This work of literary fiction is translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. It is 600 pages long, with the last few meticulously detailing yet again; an index of the book’s many sober yet colourful characters. That might hint somewhat of the Nobel Prize Literature winner’s painstaking fastidiousness; in his longtime career as a novelist.

I can grasp up to 250 pages on a good day complete with wines, teas and the amused silence, if a literary novel merits such devotion that I would dare part with ITV3’s Midsomer Murders or the comical Doc Martin countryside doctor series.

My zeal was justified.

I wanted badly to lose myself in Pamuk’s latest novel called The Red-Haired Woman with no sign of guilt as having neglected his earlier works, so that’s why, the scrambled girlish rush. 🤭

No matter the tiresome length, A Strangeness In My Mind worked for me because a) I am devoted to stories from the Middle-East b) I am a passionate disciple of literary fiction and c) l relish working class tales.

I own two editions. One is the hardback version which features the cover below and another a fat paperback with a different cover. The reader is treated to different illustrations of Istanbul, past and present comprising of Pamuk’s own affectionate sketches. Both these editions make superb collector’s items.

At first, I thought A Strangeness In My Mind to be nothing more than the complex tale of a boza-seller, plying his now forgotten trade on the streets of Istanbul, that still shaped ancient neighbourhoods made up of unruly children and noisy, boisterous grown-ups.

By the way, this is how the dictionary describes the drink, boza. (An acidulated fermented drink of the Arabs and Egyptians, made from millet seed and various astringent substances; also, an intoxicating beverage made from hemp seed, darnel meal, and water.) The malted beverage is served with roasted chickpeas, cinnamon powder and contains alcohol.

In this respect, the novel whips up riveting conversational dialogues – sometimes a little intense and heated – when strange customers demand of the boza-seller and this, in the dead of night; if his drink is designed to make them turn drunk. We are told in the dedicated novel that an experienced boza-seller will always maintain a careful, diplomatic stance.

Later, I realised that there was so much more to this deeply-illuminating tale than a hawker hoping for his share of windfall from old-fashioned families who might be thirsting after a glass or two.

To sum it all up in a few lines, A Strangeness In My Mind shapes a beautiful love story but I hadn’t realised how the gentle narration had pulled at my heartstrings, until the very end. This is a subdued love affair and compassionate marriage tie between the protagonist, Mevlut and his wife, Rahiya. It draws its complicated heart-line from love-letters sent to the wrong person. The narrative is based on nothing short of a sound realism with the wounded heart’s craving for optimism, a ray of gladness and hope at the very end.

I followed a village Turkish family and their relatives from the faraway rural countryside to the streets of Istanbul. I got caught up in their culturally different day-to-day existence. 3 sisters marry into the same family and these are the characters who steer the novel’s plot with the extraordinary effect their menfolk have on them.

There are the usual hordes of jealous brothers, quarrelsome friends, meddlesome relatives, nosy in-laws… all of these which I love. Still, the romance that quietly weaves through the novel’s plot and is content to rest in the shadows, is what stays most concrete until the end.

Pamuk’s story was so convincing that when a middle-aged character died before his time, early on in the book, I felt real sorrow. Pamuk is after all, anything but a sentimental writer. Yet he captures this fictional man’s habits, characteristics, aspirations, foibles and faults so acutely, that I mourned for the character’s death, having felt I had once brushed into him in person.

Many characters showcase their own distinct voices that tell a different story to an episode and so Pamuk treats the reader with a fuller-more rounded approach and perspective to something that takes place without the reliance on a protagonist’s version of things.

Also, Pamuk begins his story with its dramatic sequence in the middle-point of a plot. He then relies on childhood flashbacks and exposition scenes that feature the physically tough life of a melancholic boza-seller.

The narrator’s hand appears to slip in easily enough, back and forth to the present time and future, with deft mastery. Meanwhile, the painful and patronising divisions of class rule are also made obvious ie. the rich versus the poor through a condescending show of behavioral patterns. The women fictional characters in this novel especially wives and mother, accept their laborious homemaking skills – all of which derive from second-class status – rather respectfully and with resignation. The odd feminist will openly rebel and be frowned upon. Then there is the touchy subject of donning the headscarf.

With Orhan Pamuk’s elegant and graceful and smooth, velvety flow to a long, tight plot, I felt on reading this novel that I was treated to a masterclass in storytelling.

Without warning, I readily absorbed many different techniques to novel-writing.

Of how portraying a character’s surroundings that reflect sights, sounds, smells and intuitive feelings… In fact, little atmospheric things that the man-on-the street notices would eventually journey up a compelling sense-of-place watermark stamp over A Strangeness In My Mind and would also, genie up a reader on an invisible, magic carpet, to another startling, enthralling and hypnotic world. And so, it was with me.

Further Reading:

More on Turkish Boza

Podcast Interview by Slate with Nobel Prize Literature winner, Orhan Pamuk on his latest novel, The Red-Haired Woman